I was at a barbecue in the garden of the British embassy bar in Ankara on Friday night when F16s started roaring overhead. We soon heard that the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul had been blocked off, too, and there was talk from various off-duty officials of an attempt at a military coup. It seemed so unlikely.
A friend in Istanbul called and said state media institutions had been taken over by army and jandarma officers calling themselves a peace council, and that the broadcaster TRT was showing endless weather reports. Then the explosions started and we were told we had to leave.
Some who were there had been informed by their places of work to go home immediately so we sheltered nearby at a friend’s place, close to the prime minister’s palace – a Belgian, an Italian, a Syrian-born Jordanian and three Brits. I had been tweeting what was going on and was talking to various news agencies – before my phone battery predictably died – as the jets continued to fly low overhead. I heard an unfamiliar noise and stuck my head out of the window to see a stream of tanks going past. It seemed pretty serious.
As the night crept on into Saturday morning, the gunshots drew close, it felt like they were metres away, and the bangs, too – a mix of bombs, aircraft fire and sonic booms that are not always easy to distinguish. Some of the explosions were so close the vibrations shook in my chest. My friends were crying and regularly running for shelter in the hall – the TV blanked out. There were frantic messages to loved ones. “This is much worse than it was in Damascus,” the Syrian-born friend kept saying. I even tweeted “I love you mum!”
“I am calling you into the streets,” President Erdoğan texted everyone with a Turkish number at some point in the early hours. He wanted everyone to “stand up” for democracy and peace against the junta. I was disgusted to see on social media later what that meant – boys barely old enough to vote pulled from tanks and beaten, whipped with belts, people posing for pictures next to the bodies of dead soldiers. The police looked on. What sort of democracy was this?
And much has been said about “democracy” – it was fıred out by the government as a motivational buzzword to mobilise people. The quashing of the coup was touted as a “victory for democracy” – but democrats don’t burn down the homes of Syrian migrants, they don’t threaten to rape the children of their enemies. The army claimed to be acting in the interests of democracy too. Yet they killed civilians in the street, civilians who should never have been there in the first place. These people were not motivated by democracy, on either side, but nationalism and sense of honour.
Erdoğan was Turkey’s first democratically elected president, but what he represents is not democracy. There is little understanding, it seems, among his supporters of the difference between the presence of elections and a true democracy. The concept is used in Turkey as an empty term to legitimise any mob mentality that works in the government’s favour.
For two days and nights, many got no sleep because the mosques regularly called for people to take to the streets. On Saturday, protests swelled in celebration of what they called democracy – there were flags everywhere, guns, chants of “Allahu Akbar” and nationalist songs. They were out again on Sunday and it continued well into this morning. The “Grey Wolf” salutes of those affiliated with the ultranationalist, arguably racist, Nationalist Movement party (MHP) were everywhere. My clothing has been disapproved of by passersby, something I have not experienced much of in Turkey. This sort of nationalism scares me and Erdoğan has asked for people to remain mobilised like this for a week.
While nationalism has become a global sickness – from Brexit to Donald Trump – as deglobalisation kicks in, Turkish society is crumbling under the weight of this growing tumour. Now an already polarised country will be further divided and many will be silenced with the label of “traitor”. Erdoğan and his party are whipping people into a nationalist frenzy to further their support and consolidate even more power.
While an impressive display of people power prevented the armed coup, it will likely now result in unleashing a further crackdown on dissent. Aside from thousands of arrests, many press outlets have already had their websites blocked. Friday’s events may well grant the government free rein to purge enemies, presenting them as “the enemies of democracy”. Even the push to reinstate the death penalty is being touted as a democratic necessity.
When I finally got home on Saturday, I saw cars on my road squashed flat by tanks like they were little more than a Coke can – all in the name of democracy. I really hope Turkey’s democratic future won’t now suffer the same fate.
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